The Legend of Peace
I’m not an anti-war artist. I’m simply an individual who believes that any war should be avoided. —Nara Yoshitomo1
In Greek mythology, the beautiful goddess Athena planted an olive branch in the ground during her legendary contest with Poseidon. The tiny branch grew into Greece’s first olive tree, providing citizens with food, oil and wood. With her graceful act winning over Poseidon’s violent gesture, Athena was made patron deity of the city Athens; from then on, the olive branch became a ubiquitous symbol of victory, prosperity and peace. Joining a long line of peace ambassadors throughout history who bore the sacred branch, Nara Yoshitomo’s larger-than-life The Little Ambassador (Lot 1040) clutches a tiny green sprout in her hand—a contemporary messenger of peace that encapsulates and epitomizes the epochal emancipative spirit of Nara’s entire epic oeuvre.
The paradigmatic Little Ambassador measures nearly two-meters tall; the very first work from a precious batch of iconic Ambassador paintings that Nara created in the early 2000s. Monumental and iconic, the little girl scowls and glares at us, furious at the state of the world and the broken promises of her forbearers. Enchanting, endearing yet powerfully evocative, the painting constitutes Nara’s peace-advocating magnum opus—his painterly response to his visit to Auschwitz in the same year, after which the artist wrote in his diary: “There’s too much to think about and all I can do is tremble; there is no way I can write …”2 Nara explained in an interview that the sprout is the symbol of the United Nations and a symbol of hope, continuing with: “But I’m not an anti-war artist. I’m simply an individual who believes that any war should be avoided”.3
While Nara’s endearing oeuvre is universally adored, there has been scant scholarly effort to articulate the artist’s specific position and significance in the art historical canon. One of the few to attempt is Japanese critic Matsui Midori, who opines that Nara’s work belongs to the family of “strange figuration”—a style “formed after Cubism, enriching the pictorial plane simplified after abstraction” by “reclaim[ing] the importance of personal emotion”.4 According to Matsui, one of strange figuration’s foremost representatives was Balthus, whose portraits of young girls communicated a “unique mixture of tranquillity, classic stylization, and fantasy”. In a similar manner, Nara’s paintings of children constituted a radical mixture of influences guided first and foremost by his “ability to recapitulate essential emotions” through the emphasis on naiveté, which “enhances the style’s poetic concentration and its capacity to incur the viewer’s imaginative projection”. By using children to advocate peace, therefore, The Little Ambassador communicates a wholly affective distinctive language of resistance and protest.
The Little Ambassador was created after Nara spent five years studying in Dusseldorf, a period during which the artist immersed himself in Western art history and viewed classical masterpieces in the flesh. One of the stylistic influences explicitly cited by the artist is the pre-Renaissance Italian painter Giotto; and indeed, upon careful and considered examination, intriguing parallels can be found. Stephan Trescher observes: first, both artists engaged in distorting shifts in pictorial space and scale: Giotto in background landscape, Nara within the individual figure. Second, both artists rendered space-engendering figures against flat backgrounds, a style that effected directness and simplicity. Thirdly, the fine surface work in both artists’ paintings constitute an uncanny plastic presence: as Trescher writes, just as “Giotto’s figures always remain oddly nonphysical [with] enormous plasticity […] the equivalent can be found in [Nara’s] undifferentiated children’s bodies […] which have such a presence in the space”.5
In the current lot especially, the canvas’s pearly, almost translucent presence is particularly striking and enthralling. The little girl’s dress of pale pastel green is almost ethereal in its soft luminosity, while the neutral background hue glows with an enchanting dream-like radiance. The painting’s fairy-tale world effect creates a uniquely captivating visual effect described by philosopher Yoshimoto Takayuki as “the function of another unconscious eye”: one that at once pervades everything and distances itself, “as if it were a recollected vision”.6 As Matsui observes, since 1996 Nara’s emphasis has gradually changed to be on the formal perfection of the picture plane: coinciding with the artist’s production of FRP sculptural pieces since 1995, his pictorial figures “beg[an] to attain the illusion of three-dimensionality, coming out of the pastel background buoyed up by luminous shadows. The new style demonstrates Nara’s moving toward ‘Italian’ tranquillity and classic balance”.
Aside from the obvious references to anime, manga, Pop Art and punk rock, therefore, Nara’s oeuvre—whether in style, subject or motif—reaches back deep into the classics, bridging East and West, contemporaneity and antiquity, maturity and minority naiveté. In The Little Ambassador, especially, Nara’s angry little children have started to grow up. After Athena who planted the olive branch; Eirene, Greek Goddess of Peace and Mars, Roman God of War; as well as the Archangel Gabriel who features on the back panels of Jan van Eyck’s The Ghent Alterpiece, Nara’s Little Ambassador has become the latest heroic messenger of peace. In 2011, in the wake of the Fukushima disaster, Nara famously uploaded his “No Nukes” anti-nuclear painting onto the internet so that people could print it out and take to demonstrations. Created a decade before this, The Little Ambassador stands testament to the subtle yet powerfully subversive message in Nara’s globally pervasive oeuvre.
1 The artist quoted in Kamiya Setsuko, “An Artist Drawing on Peace”, Japan Times, March 30, 2003
2 Miriam Silverberg, “War Responsibility Revisited: Auschwitz in Japan”, July 3, 2007
3 Refer to 1
4 Matsui Midori, “A Gaze from Outside: Merits of the Minor in Yoshitomo Nara’s Painting”, in exh. cat. Nara Yoshitomo: I Don’t Mind, If You Forget Me, Japan, 2001, p. 168
5 Stephan Trescher, “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog”, in Yoshitomo Nara: Lullaby Supermarket, Michael Zink Gallery, Munich, 2002, p. 12
6 Refer to 4, p. 171